At the start of a new year, it’s customary to look back and reminisce, or to look forward with velleity. And so naturally I’ll avoid doing all that because I just couldn’t be bothered with that sort of thing.
But what I have been mulling over for the past few weeks is a question posed by a colleague at a team-demolition supper shortly before Christmas. In discussing our plans for staying in England (still aligned with a three-year sojourn and subsequent return), he asked “So, what do you think you’ll take back with you when you return?” This digressed to a general chat about what has really impressed me about England. And the first thing that came to mind was the beauty of the English countryside. Which, I think, is also the predominant memory I’ll be taking back with me.
If you speak to a South African about England, the general picture is usually centred around the miserable weather, the grey skies, and the city of London. But where we live – in a semi-rural area on the edge of Birmingham, which is in one of the drier areas in the country, that bleak image isn’t quite true. Get in a car, and within five minutes, you can be completely outside the city, in among fields and barns, and surrounded by scenes that at first glance haven’t really changed in over a hundred years. And to me, there isn’t anything to match the red-brick barns, surrounded by rolling green fields, bordered by tidy hedges, dotted with majestic oak trees.
Now don’t get me wrong – this isn’t the awesome splendour of the fjords of Norway. It’s nothing like the barren vistas of the Karoo. The endless forests and lakes of the Swedish highlands or the steppes of Russia aren’t too bad either. And I’m a sucker for tropical forests wherever they are found. But England is different. It’s cultured, cultivated and tame. Little seems out of place – as though the whole landscape is a film set, or a painting. It’s sanitised and pure, and could perhaps be accused of being contrived, or even a little medicinal.
But it oozes history, and timelessness. It feels ancient and constant. Even the changes through the seasons feel like subtle details compared to the wholesale transformation you experience in places with real winters and decent summers. There are times when there is a real sensation of looking out on a landscape which has not changed since the times of Wordsworth. Granted, it takes a bit of practice to ignore power lines and tarmac, but it’s not hard once you get the hang of it.
I go out cycling early in the morning nearly every day, and my new all-time favourite vista is standing next to a hedge, looking south-east across the green fields in the early morning mist. The sun is about to rise, and the pink light is making a silhouette of the bare oak trees on the far side of the field. It still gives me a thrill every time I see it, in spite of the number of times a week I get to experience it.